Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Earthquake experience in Tokyo

I was at the office when the earthquake happened on March 11th. Here is my sequence of events, from Friday 11th to Saturday 12th.

  • I'm working in a 24-story building. The earthquake started at the beginning of the afternoon (officially at 14h46). We already had one on Tuesday or Wednesday, so I thought it was "just another one". Then it started shaking more and more. It's the biggest quake I've experienced in ten years here. Some Japanese colleagues started covering themselves under their desk. I was putting my shoes on (I was wearing slippers) and looking right at the door, ready to rush out. The shake started to slow down. The building was still in one piece, and so were we. We all knew it was a big one, and wondered where it came from. Everybody was looking at the latest news on Internet. Leaving out or staying in ? We were all staying in there, waiting for instructions from the disaster prevention center. Then came the announce, telling us how big the earthquake was, where it happened, and what we had to do. The instructions were that it was safe to stay in, and there was no reason to panic. Then came aftershocks. One, two, three... The building was dancing. It felt like being on a boat, and this was getting on everybody's nerve.
  • Another rather big shake (not as big as the first one though) came. I can't remember the time. I told my colleagues I was going out, and told them they should come too. So we went out, waiting for things to calm down. There were many people in the streets. We were all checking the news on our cell phones. We saw what was happening in the north, and what happened to the cities eaten by a tsunami. There were reports that the tsunami would come to Tokyo, but that it would be rather small. Nothing compared to what annihilated the north-east coast.
  • We came back into the building after about an hour. Of course, elevators were stopped. We used the emergency stairs and witnessed how much damages the earthquake had made to the building : cracks on the walls and on the floor. Nothing serious, but it still leaves you wondering what will happen if another big one comes.
  • Back at my desk. It's around four o'clock. We're still keeping an eye on the latest news while working. All trains around are stopped. So are the Tokyo Metro lines. It was going to be a long day before being able to go back home. As the "end of work" bell rung, some colleagues were already leaving. Some would try to find their way through the crowded train stations, despite the transport paralysis. Some decided to walk, no matter how far they were living. Even a three hour walk in the dark and in the cold would not stop them (One of my colleague decided to walk too and told me she arrived safely home the following morning, at 4:30). As far as I'm concerned, I'm leaving too far away from Tokyo. So I decided to stay all night at the office, unless trains would run again, and unless some big shakes were being felt again.
  • Food. I didn't think about food at once. But then I saw a picture of a convenient store, with empty shelves. And another picture of a woman holding four cup noodles. I rushed for the convenient store downstairs. It was almost too late. Only a few small cup noodles left. Bigger ones were already sold out. No more onigiri, no more obentou, no more bread. Fortunately, I had just enough for the night and the morning.
  • It was warm inside, I had hot water, toilets. Nothing to complain about. During the night, East Japan Railway announced that their trains would start moving around 7am. I decided to leave the office at 6:30am and see how it turns out. I had two major routes : one was to go to Tokyo Station and try to get on one of the three lines going to my place. Another one was to ride on the Ginza Line (Tokyo Metro) to Shibuya, change there and get on a train to my place. Difficult choice. The second one is a longer route. I had a bad feeling about the first one. East Japan Railway often says things different from what the reality is. Nevertheless, I decided to check at Tokyo Station first.
  • A 30 minute walk to the station. Some people who spent the night there are sitting or sleeping on the floor. Most shops are closed. The entrance from which I came from was not crowded at all. Very few people. I could not believe it. One of the main passage to the several platforms was not *that* crowded either. But the platforms were ! I couldn't tell where the waiting line was ending. Two of the three platforms I was planning to go were overcrowded. While I walked from one to another, I encountered more and more people aiming at the platforms, or lining up to buy a ticket. They were pouring in from entrances located at the opposite side of where I came from. The third platform was miraculously not very crowded, so I decided to wait there.
  • A long wait. It was cold on the platform, light wind blowing. An employee of East Japan Railway keeps on telling us the same message, on and on. "The train is being inspected, it will take some time until it arrives, the terminus will be station X..." Again and again. One man told him to stop telling lies. Some people around me gave up and got back downstairs. I noticed that the railway employees were preventing more people to come, to avoid that the platform gets overcrowded. Despite the bad feeling, I'm still waiting. The train finally came after an hour and a half. I manage to get on the train, and the first thing we're being told is : "One of wagon is having some troubles and has to be inspected again. It will take some time until it leaves the station". That the last drop poured in my patience pot. I went out. Some others went out too. Change of plan : I go for my second option.
  • Out of Tokyo Station, walking towards Nihonbashi Metro Station. The train was a bit late, but finally came. It was a bit crowded, but I've seen worse. I safely arrived at the Shibuya Station and changed train. The next train I was riding on only had trains which stop at every station. No express. Did I bother ? Of course not. It was going to be a long ride, but as long as I arrive at destination... One more train change, and I was home.
  • Finally, I arrived home at 11am. Not bad, but I regret going to Tokyo Station first. Now we're having aftershocks every day. The nuclear plant in Fukushima is slowly getting out of control, although there's still no reason to panic. Talking about panic, I'll write another blog entry about how it was to go shopping on Monday 14th.

I saw pictures of the tsunami on Internet, but I only discovered the scale of chaos and horror after reaching home. Cars, trucks, trains, boats, houses being pushed by the wave like plastic toys. My earthquake experience seems so insignificant compared to what people are facing over there. Most people living in the destroyed towns have lost everything. Lots have lost their life. Lots have lost their parents, their children, their friends, their home. People are starting to share what they saw. There was a man who was looking for his wife and daughters, who were heading to one of his daughter's graduation ceremony. He found their car among the rubble. Looking into the car, he could see some feet and arms inside, but he was not allowed to confirm who was inside... It's easy to imagine how it must to be in such a situation, but I think it's difficult to understand how painful it really is.

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